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The price difference between organic and conventional these days is only a few cents — ok, I am not including Whole Foods (aka ‘Whole Paycheck’) — they are a whole different animal. I am talking about more mainstream grocery stores, like Ralph’s or Vons whose choice of organic fresh produce has grown quite a bit in the last few years. Ever wonder why organic foods — fresh or processed do cost more though? I will discuss the differences between organic and conventional farming and see which method actually does cost more in the end.
I will start with conventional produce and how it is produced. To start with, a majority of farms are subsidized by the government — a practice that started with President Roosevelt during the 1930s. It was meant to supplement a farmers income and manage the supply and pricing of certain commodities, in order to help feed America during The Great Depression, and was supposed to be temporary. The government continues to give out cash payments but now the money goes to Agri-business, not small family farms. The 2008 Farm Bill is still being hashed out to this day, but the focus seems to be on the food stamp program that is tied in to the farm bill, instead of why Agri-business is getting a paycheck instead of the farms it was originally intended for.
According to the Environmental Working Group, which tracks government subsidy data, at least 15 members of Congress or their spouses received farm subsidies last year, including six members of the House Agriculture Committee and two members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The wife of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., was one of those recipients. Two of the House committee members who receive subsidies – Reps. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif. – made impassioned arguments against the government spending too much money on food stamps when the panel considered the farm bill last month.
Hmmm — I wonder whose interests these guys are looking out for?
Conventional farms are allowed to use genetically modified (gm) seed– they can and do use pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that are “man-made” petroleum based. A couple of examples are Ammonium Phosphate and Potassium Sulfate, which turns soil acidic. Synthetic fertilizers don’t support microbiological life in the soil. They actually kill a good deal of microorganisms which play a vital role keeping the soil healthy by breaking down organic matter.
Conventional farmers use all their land when planting crops. Planting the same crop, like corn year after year causes the soil to become compacted and nutrient deficient, and the farmer ends up needing to use more synthetic fertilizers to keep soil fertile. Conventional farmers are allowed to save their seeds, but farmers who choose to buy gm seeds, sign a contract that states they will never save seeds and have to buy new seeds every year — also the gm seeds are meant to work on in conjunction with the seed manufactures (who are really chemical companies) herbicide.
Monsanto is a perfect example of this. Monsanto sells the gm seeds and the seed becomes a plant that is immune to Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide. All other non-gmo foilage are killed off. The controversy now is that RoundUp is killing butterflies, birds and creating new, super worms, which are eating the gm crops.
Organic farms are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has a division called the Agricultural Marketing Service. That service implemented a National Organic Office in 2002. It is through that office that farmers in the United States of America become certified as organic growers. Organic farmers must apply for certification, pass a test, and pay an annual certification/inspection fee (ranging $400-$2000). They must adhere to strict record-keeping which includes day-to-day farming and marketing records, and are subject to inspection at any time. They must provide documentation, such as the farms history — the water and soil must be tested. The soil is not allowed to be used for organic farming for at least two years if the farm was originally a conventional farm. Farmers need to submit a written annual production plan including seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods and storage locations. Once the organic produce reaches the market, it is not allowed to touch conventional produce. They must kept be on a separate shelf.
Organic produce is grown under stricter regulations than commercial. Organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. They are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers. Like I mentioned earlier, conventional farming allows synthetic fertilizers — organic farms use animal manure to fertilize the land, like bat guano, worm casings, and seaweed.
Organic farms requires more labor, like hand weeding in place of chemical treatments. Organic produce is more nutritious because they don’t use pesticides or herbicides –pesticides kill vitamins and nutrients. Organic crops are not allowed to be fertilized with toxic sewage sludge or coal waste. Commercial farms are allowed this practice. Organic farmers rotate their crops which helps keep the soil healthy.
I find this quite disturbing — organic and conventional do have at least one thing in common though. The name “organically grown” doesn’t apply when it comes to packaging. Are you vegetarian or vegan? Do you know what that wax stuff is on your produce? I see it on many of the tomatoes in grocery stores these days. How about if I told you it could be cow, pig or chicken collagen? I’m not kidding and it’s all approved by the FDA. Remember when Starbucks thought it was a good idea to use crushed beetles as their color additive for their Frappuccinos?
Most of the conventional corn crops grown in the U.S. are now genetically modified. They are also used to make food additives that are now under scrutiny.
- Between 1995 and 2011, $18.2 billion in tax dollars subsidized four common junk food additives—corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils (which are processed further into hydrogenated vegetable oils).
- Healthier agricultural products receive very little in federal subsidies. Since 1995, taxpayers spent only $637 million subsidizing apples, which is one of the few fresh fruits or vegetables that have a significant federal subsidy.
- If subsidies for junk food ingredients went directly to taxpayers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 141 million taxpayers would receive $7.58 to spend on junk food and 27 cents to spend on apples each year—enough to buy 21 Twinkies but just half of one Red Delicious.
All the health experts agree that eating this food is bad for our health and bad for the economy due to high healthcare costs. But when the majority of the food available in markets are considered “junk food” — what are we supposed to eat? When the government tries to regulate food (like Mayor Bloomberg did with sugary drinks) — they are accused of acting like “nanny states”.
Those who think organic farming is some “hippie” idea — aren’t aware of how growing food got started. Organic is not some “new” concept. It’s the way food has been grown for 1,000s of years. Organic used to be called “food” — period. Pesticides were introduced after WWII, when the military used DDT to kill bugs on soldiers in combat. Farmers found about it and wanted to use it to kill bugs on their crops. Before long the land was “hooked” on the chemicals like a junkie and the chemical companies became their dealers.
What if Agri-business stopped getting a government hand-out? Corn definitely would not be so cheap and therefore high fructose corn syrup might not be used as widely by food manufacturers. Let’s face it — the food industry cares about their bottom line, just like the consumer. We buy processed foods and eat fast food because it’s cheaper than making it from scratch.
Organic does cost a bit more, but mostly because they are held to higher standards than conventional. Isn’t that supposed to be a “good” thing? Take away the farm subsidy, especially to corporate farms and prices might stabilize.
The true “cost” of food production from conventional farming, including replacement of eroded soils, cleaning up polluted water, health care for farmers who get sick, and environmental costs of pesticide production and disposal, organic farming might actually be cheaper in the end.
So if you ask me, organic doesn’t cost more than commercial. Its better for us and the planet.